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No military commander in independent India, except one, has received a state funeral. But so overwhelmed was a nascent nation at the supreme courage and sacrifice of Brigadier Mohammad Usman 66 years ago that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his cabinet colleagues turned up at the funeral of the hero—the “highest ranking military commander till date” to lay down his life in the battlefield—who was laid to rest with full state honours on the premises of Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi.
Two memorials, one at Jamia Millia Islamia, the other at Naushera, stand as silent reminders of the man today—as the nation prepares to observe his one hundredth birth anniversary.
It was 5.45 pm on July 3, 1948. Jhangar near Naushera (Jammu). The sun was about to set and the brigadier, having offered his evening prayers, was holding the routine, daily meeting with his staff officers at his command post—actually, a makeshift structure rigged with the help of a few tents. A sudden burst of shelling sent them all scurrying for cover behind a rock formation.
The brigadier sized up the situation and saw the enemy’s field guns to be too well-entrenched. Spotting an enemy observation post sited on an elevation, he shouted instructions for his field guns to engage the fortification while he himself attempted a dash, presumably in an effort to alert others. But as he stepped out, a shell from a 25-pounder landed almost next to him—its splinters killing him on the spot. Usman died 12 days short of his 36th birthday.
Hailing from a modest, middle-class family in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Usman had steel in his spine. At the tender age of 12, they still remember of him, he had jumped into a well to rescue a drowning child. He had a stammering problem in childhood, but overcame the handicap by sheer willpower. One of the ten Indian boys to secure admission to the Royal Military Academy (RMA) at Sandhurst, England, in 1932—the last batch of Indians to do so—the feat made no less remarkable by that distinction. Usman was commissioned in the storied Baluch Regiment at the age of 23 and saw action in Afghanistan and Burma during the World War. He rose quickly to the rank of brigadier, drawing attention to himself by his firm and fair handling of the precarious communal situation at Multan. During the splintering of the army in the wake of Partition, Usman was offered the promise of out-of-turn promotions and the prospect of becoming the army chief in Pakistan. A senior Muslim officer at the time, everyone expected him to grab the offer.
But the brigadier surprised everyone by opting to stick with India. Neither Mohammed Ali Jinnah nor Liaquat Ali Khan could convince him to have a change of heart.
Of Usman’s heroics, former vice-chief of the army staff, Lieutenant General S.K. Sinha, then General Staff Officer to General Cariappa, recalls: “I accompanied General Cariappa to Naushera. He went round the defences and then told Brigadier Usman that Kot overlooked our defences and must be secured. Two days later, Usman mounted a successful attack against that feature. He named it Operation Kipper, the General’s nickname. A week later, over 10,000 infiltrators attacked Naushera. With Kot held by us, our boys inflicted a crushing defeat on the enemy, who retreated leaving over 900 dead. This was the biggest battle of the Kashmir war. Usman became a national hero.”
The defence of Naushera, against overwhelming odds and numbers, made him a living legend. Naushera ka Sher. The Pakistanis announced a prize of Rs 50,000 for his head, an astronomical sum in 1948. But even as congratulatory messages poured in, the brigadier remained unaffected and continued to sleep on a mat laid on the floor. He had taken a vow that he would not use a cot till he recaptured Jhangar, from where he had to withdraw earlier in the face of a fierce onslaught by the infiltrators. Jhangar was of strategic importance, located at the junction of roads coming from Mirpur and Kotli. But more compelling was his fierce pride in his men and determination to restore their honour.
On March 15, 1948, the brigadier signed an order to the “Comrades of 50 (I) Para Brigade”. It read: “Time’s come for the capture of Jhangar. It is not an easy task, but I’ve complete faith in you all to do your best to recapture the lost ground and retrieve the honour of our arms—we must not falter, we must not fail. Forward friends, fearless we go to Jhangar. India expects everyone to do his duty. Jai Hind.” Three days later, his troops recaptured Jhangar.
The legend grew. It would have grown larger still. Had the Lion of Naushera survived the July of 1948, could he have ended his career as India’s first Muslim army chief?